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The GoPro Mountain Games returned to Vail in June 2021 after taking a year off. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado tourism industry is bouncing back from the pandemic, but the recovery is not evenly distributed across the state. 

Front Range urban destinations have yet to see traffic return to 2019 levels while Western Slope mountain communities are setting all-time records.

The Colorado Tourism Office’s survey of 2021 visitors by research groups Longwoods International and Dean Runyan Associates shows visitor spending reaching $21.9 billion, a 42% increase over 2020 but still below the record $24.2 billion tourists spent in 2019. (The U.S. travel industry reported a 48% increase to $268 billion in 2021 compared with the previous year.)

Colorado’s tourism businesses hosted 84.2 million trips in 2021, up 14% from 2020 but down from the high of 86.9 million trips in 2019. Leisure travel led the rebound in 2021 while business trips, convention groups and international travel remained down. 

Of the eight travel regions in Colorado, half have not recovered to 2019 levels. Spending by visitors in metro Denver and along the Front Range was down about 19% in 2021 compared with the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. Spending in Western Slope mountain destinations was up 9% in 2021 compared with 2019. 

Other details from the 2021 surveys include:

  • Workers in the state’s tourism industry earned $7.4 billion in 2021, up 12% from 2020 but down 2% from 2019. 
  • Travel industry employment increased by 14,800 jobs in 2021, with the state reporting 161,000 tourism-dependent jobs. That’s up 10% from 2020 but down from 184,100 jobs in 2019. 
  • 36.3 million U.S. travelers spent a night in Colorado in 2021, up 18% from 2020 but down from 39 million domestic overnight trips in 2019. About 81% of those 2021 overnight travelers were repeat visitors.
  • 1.8 million business travelers spent the night in Colorado in 2021, down from 2 million in 2020 and 3.8 million in 2019.
  • Taxes collected by the state, counties and municipalities on travel-related purchases reached $3.1 billion in 2021, up 40% from 2020 but down about 3% from 2019. 

The Colorado tourism industry’s recovery from a steep decline in 2020 saw sporadic surges of traffic in high country villages. The 2021-22 ski season ranked as the busiest ever for both Colorado and the nation, with U.S. resorts hosting more than 61 million visits and the most skied state in the country, Colorado, reporting a record 14 million visits

The record-setting traffic in the mountains has chafed locals as soaring real estate prices push them further from resort-anchored valleys, triggering a labor crisis. But the steady year-over-year increases from 2021 appear to be ebbing in 2022, with many resort communities reporting smaller crowds than last summer. 

A sustained slackening of bookings and occupancy already is underway this summer in Colorado’s high country. Inntopia’s DestiMetrics, which compiles lodging details from 17 mountain destinations in seven Western states, last month reported a decline in summer reservations compared to both 2021 and 2019. That slower pace for bookings began earlier this year as pent-up travel demand from the pandemic started to wane. 

“And though we’re still seeing room rates at all-time highs, the slackening demand is now long-term and increasing economic pressures are forcing consumers to retreat from high room rates,” Tom Foley with Inntopia said in a statement. “The result is that considerably fewer room nights have been booked for this summer compared to both last year and 2019, and it is unlikely that those higher rates alleviate the revenue decrease caused by lower occupancy.”

A line of vehicles waits for pedestrians to cross at an intersection in Crested Butte, Colorado on July 30, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tim Wolfe, the head of the Colorado Tourism Office, said his team is working to find “balance and harmony” with tourist-dependent economies and local concerns about growth and capacity. 

He’s focused on reviving international traffic that has collapsed since 2020. 

“The mountains may be saying we don’t need tourism anymore but that is kind of a yes-and-no type of thing because international travel has not rebounded yet and those folks spend five times the amount of other travelers,” Wolfe said. “That international component has not rebounded for the mountains and those travel patterns are better with full weeks instead of just full weekends that they’ve been getting.” 

The state tourism office has $4.8 million in tourism grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to disperse to rebuild the state’s pandemic-ravaged tourism industry. About $2.8 million of that is headed toward marketing for international visitors and $2 million will be dispersed to local destination management and tourism groups in areas that have not yet rebounded from the pandemic. 

Shoppers stroll the Main Street in the Town of Breckenridge below the ski area on Jan. 13, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Rebuilding international tourism to the state is among the office’s top priorities. In 2019, visitors from overseas spent $1.7 billion in Colorado, accounting for more than 8% of all visitor spending in the state. That spending dropped to $306 million in 2020 and $385 million in 2021 as COVID restrictions limited international traffic. 

Tourism promoters are facing headwinds in Colorado’s busy mountain communities. Record-setting crowds in the last two years — largely stemming from pent-up demand for travel during the pandemic and the view that Colorado’s outdoor spaces were safe escapes — have worn on towns struggling through a labor shortage and housing crisis. 

A new law passed by Colorado lawmakers this spring will give residents of 29 marketing districts — most on the Western Slope — the ability to redirect lodging tax dollars from tourism promotion toward affordable housing and recreational infrastructure. The bipartisan House Bill 1117 — which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in April — allows voters in 29 local marketing districts across the state to spend as much as 90% of lodging taxes collected for tourism promotion on affordable housing, child care for local workers and “enhancing visitors experiences” with investment in recreational amenities like trails and trailheads.

Already communities are preparing for a vote in November

Champions of tourism are now defending their industry in communities that thrive on travelers. Their arguments focus on the role of tourism officials in rural communities as managers more than marketers.  

“The Colorado Tourism Office along with our partners … are the only voice out there for those high-value travelers. If you cut that voice off, then we can’t communicate to try to get those high quality travelers that really align with our Colorado values,” Wolfe said. 

The Colorado Tourism Office’s new “Shine A Little Brighter” and “Do Colorado Right” ad campaigns help educate visitors about leaving no trace and responsible travel in the state. A survey of the “Shine A Little Brighter” winter campaign by Strategic Marketing and Research Insights showed the 30-second online ads spurred 900,000 trips by visitors who spent $1.9 billion, the Colorado Tourism Office reports. That’s a return of $890 for every ad dollar spent, ranking the campaign among the top 10% tourism efforts in the country. 

The Colorado Tourism Office also is working on new technology that will connect the state’s 10 welcome centers with up-to-date information for travelers about reservations and closures. Say, for example, the National Park Service reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park or Glenwood Springs’ reservations for Hanging Lake are full, or CDOT has closed Glenwood Canyon during a rainstorm, those welcome centers could offer visitors alternative plans. 

“Managing tourism is an important part of what we do,” Wolfe said. “If we can direct traffic to those high-need areas and find those high-value travelers that align with our values, that’s part of the harmony we are seeking and it helps us take care of the environment in a way,” Wolfe said. “We want to take care of our assets and leave them in a better place than we found them.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.